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Dr. Anthony Monteiro and the Struggle for the Soul of African-American Studies at Temple
This interview originally appeared on Truthout.org.
Dr. Anthony Monteiro and the Struggle for the Soul of African-American Studies at Temple
Tuesday, 15 April 2014 12:59
By Eisa Nefertari Ulen, Truthout | Interview
Few Americans outside the Black community can identify our leaders. Mainstream middle Americans can identify our stars, people like Cornel West, Angela Davis, Cory Booker, and Melissa Harris?Perry. Their media exposure ensures they figure prominently in the national discourse ? a good thing for the whole country. However, a significant and influential core of intellectual leadership works for the liberation of dispossessed people, but does so under the cacophony of sound forming the dominant media cloud. Some of the thinkers who form this intelligentsia are conservative; some are moderates - and others work in the Black Radical Tradition that is decidedly left of center. Because they work in this age of media saturation, where journalists too often seek celebrity opinion over rigorous intellectual discourse, this great diversity of talent is too often vulnerable to the power of the institutions that employ them. The tradition of challenging those institutions, of working to improve them and benefit whole communities, is becoming a quaint, mid-20th century notion. Black activist professors are not just eased out of the academy; they are chopped down. When these trees fall in the forest just outside the doors of the ivory tower - and no one tweets about it - they hardly make sound. One Black leader with the ax aimed at his knees is Dr. Anthony Monteiro ? but this tree still stands tall, and is already making some noise.
Employed by Philadelphia's Temple University as a full time, non-tenured Associate Professor in the African American Studies Department since Fall 2003, Dr. Monteiro is an expert in WEB DuBois and organizer of Temple's DuBois Lectures and Symposiums. This year, Monteiro's contract was not renewed, a move Monteiro claims was a retaliatory act spurred by his outspoken criticism of Dr. Teresa Soufas, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Temple. What might be viewed as a simple matter of HR has generated a tremendous response from the intellectual community and from residents of North Philadelphia, where Temple is located.
A Call for the Reinstatement of Monteiro has garnered signatures from Monteiro's colleagues all around the country, including intellectual superstars Mark Lamont Hill, Farah Jasmine Griffin, and Vijay Prashad, as well as Angela Davis and Cornell West. The Justice for Anthony Monteiro Facebook page has almost 1,200 likes, and several articles and blog posts have been written about Monteiro's contract.
In the following exclusive interview with Truthout, Monteiro tells his version of the events that led to his ouster. He also examines the Black Radical Tradition, what he calls "a new McCarthyism" in the academy, and "the rise of a new student vanguard."
Eisa Ulen for Truthout: How did you discover you had been terminated? Who told you, where were you when you were told, and what did you feel as you heard of your termination?
Dr. Anthony Monteiro: I received a letter from Dean Teresa Soufas in January 2014. I was partially surprised, although I knew it was possible that could occur, given my role in opposing her attempt to take over our department and to impose upon our department her choice for chair of the department. She has stood out as an administrator who uses threat, bullying, retaliation and revenge against those who stand up to her. I knew I might be targeted. I thought, however, that she might recognize that to fire me would be looked upon by students, the Black community and professors from around the nation as unjust and people would mobilize to oppose it. I thought that, given the struggle we waged in the spring of 2013, that would make her think twice about firing me.
What struggle are you referring to?
Our department was put in receivership in 2012 after Dean Soufas had rejected the faculty's choice for chairperson (Kariamu Welsh). The temporary chair appointed by the dean was about to end her one year tenure, and we had to choose a permanent chairperson. At this time, graduate and undergraduate students called for demonstrations to "Save Black Studies." These demonstrations were joined by activists from the African American community of Philadelphia.
Please briefly describe the fight to make Asante Chair.
The fight in 2013 was a fight to prevent the dean from imposing upon our department her choice for chair - which was not the majority of faculty's choice. It took a united front of students and the Black community of Philadelphia to prevent the dean from overriding our choice as she had done in 2012 with Dr. Kariamu Welsh. In the course of these demonstrations, our faculty set up a nominating process and myself and Asante were nominated to become permanent chair of the department. The dean chose Asante. The fight was for the right of the faculty and students in our department to make our own choice. Thus to save African American Studies.
How do you define the Black Radical Tradition? Where do you think Dr Molefi Asante falls in this tradition?
It is that tradition, which I believe is the majority tradition among Black intellectuals, which goes back to the anti-slavery struggle. Its 20th century form has multiple directions. I believe W.E.B Du Bois is the father of the modern Black Radical Tradition, but it includes Baldwin, King, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Kwame Ture, and Amiri Baraka. It is that tradition which is critical and either leans to socialism and communism, or openly embraces it, like Du Bois and Angela Davis, or like Cornel West and King are anti-neo-liberal capitalism from a democratic socialist stance. Socialism and the critique of race, class and gender and capitalism and imperialist war are central to it. I place myself firmly in this tradition. I teach it; I write about it and practice it. I would not put Asante in the Black Radical Tradition. On the central and strategic issues that define this tradition, he is either ambiguous, or in opposition. For instance, on issues of gender and sexual equality, he is on the conservative side, using what he believes to be African tradition to oppose sexual equality and what radicals call women's liberation. He, unlike Baraka and others, does not understand social class and its relationship to culture and Cultural Revolution. He opposes the struggle for socialism. His work shows no evidence of critiquing or even mildly critiquing neo-liberal capitalism. He has recently raised as a reason for his opposing my reinstatement and his uniting with the dean and other right wing forces in the Temple Administration, that I'm a socialist and a Marxist. However, when it came to the fight to make him chair, my ideology was not an issue.
Several prominent Black intellectuals, including Cornell West and Angela Davis, have signed a letter of support for you that asks for your reinstatement at Temple. Why do you think these leaders have advocated on your behalf? Where would you place West and Davis in the Black Radical Tradition?
Clearly Davis and West are firmly in the Black Radical Tradition. I believe I received wide support from academics and intellectuals because they know of my work as a professor, scholar, and activist. They know of my work going back decades in the fight for black freedom, in opposition to war and social and economic injustice. They know that I have fought for the freedom of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience like Mumia Abu Jamal and Nelson Mandela. They also know that something dangerous, like a new McCarthyism, is underway in many parts of the academy. They see this unjust and retaliatory firing of me as part of a dangerous trend. And because I was willing to stand up and fight and call for change, they see this as important to a fight back to save the American university, its racial, gender and ideological diversity.
What do you mean when you say "a new McCarthyism"? How does this new McCarthyism present in contemporary academic life?
By the New McCarthyism, I mean a witch hunt against intellectuals and academics who are identified with progressive, social justice, anti-racism and anti-war causes and activities. Scholars who shape their work in such ways that critique the 1% and neo-liberal capitalist policies are the targets of increasingly conservative and right wing administrators and are the targets of harassment, bullying ? and, in my case, a retaliatory firing. Within African American Studies, attacks upon the Black radical tradition and figures such as W.E.B Du Bois, Claudia Jones, Amiri Baraka, and the radical understanding of Martin Luther King's and Malcolm X's legacies in the name of afrocentrism and traditional African cultural values. This has gone hand and hand with misogynistic, patriarchal, and homophobic stances, again in the name of traditional African values. Socialism and communism are spoken of as anti-African.
The area of North Philadelphia where Temple is located has become increasingly gentrified, and displacement of Black residents has been an inevitable result of that gentrification. What influence, if any, do you think this experience in the community outside Temple University has had on your experience in the community inside Temple? In what ways has your experience been similar to the experiences of displaced African Americans who, prior to gentrification, had called North Philadelphia home through the generations?
I am a resident of North Philadelphia. My maternal grandparents came from South Carolina to the area around Temple. I have always lived in North Philadelphia and have been most of my life a neighbor to Temple. I received my PhD in sociology from Temple. I fought for Black Studies at Temple. Today Temple is moving to gentrify much of North Central Philadelphia and is displacing traditional and long-time residents. Temple sits astride the two poorest zip codes in Philadelphia, which are among the poorest zip codes in the nation. But rather than an attitude of community and good neighborliness, Temple has ruthlessly moved to take from rather than give something to the poor and has refused to use its enormous resources to help the community. It has become a neoliberal behemoth, looking from its tall buildings and offices down upon extreme poverty. I stand with and have stood with the poor. I have called for a new direction at Temple. I have attempted to open the classrooms and lecture halls to the Black and poor communities of Philadelphia. I started a Saturday Free School called Philosophy and Black Liberation, which brings together students and the community to think about issues of freedom and justice. As the economic crisis, called the Great Recession, took hold, I attempted to change my pedagogy, to reach out in new ways to the community, to bring the university and the community closer together, to make the university an ally of the poor, especially children and young people. I knew that this crisis would last for some time. I sought to infuse into my teaching issues of poverty and the nature of neo-liberal capitalism. In other words, I have attempted over the last five years to step up the advocacy and humane dimensions of my pedagogy and to broaden it to include the poor of Philadelphia.
Many North Philadelphia residents, activists, and other members of the community have rallied to support you. Why do you think local residents feel such a sense of urgency with regard to the movement to support your reinstatement? Why do you think local residents feel personally invested in what one could say is essentially a staff change at the local university?
I think the community sees me as part of it. Many people know of my stances for justice. I have a long history of struggle alongside the poor of Philadelphia. I am viewed as an organic and activist intellectual. I have not and do not use my status as a professor or my degrees to separate me from my people. I think ordinary people see in me as an ally and an outspoken opponent of racial, class and gender injustice. On these issues, I do not retreat.
Let's talk about the African American Studies Department at Temple. What do you identify as the top issues or major concerns that need to be addressed to improve the department? What structural, institutional, cultural, pedagogical, and/or personnel changes would you like to see?
Temple's African American Studies Department is and has been in crisis for many years. This seems to be the case for many departments around the nation. Temple's crisis is mainly caused by successive administrations that have treated it with contempt and have not understood the strategic value to the liberal arts of the black intellectual, literary, music, artistic traditions to developing the liberal arts. Also because the neo-liberal turn in higher education is in such profound opposition to the traditions of black intellectual thought and practices, many administrators are uncomfortable with it. It has been for some time and is the case today that many administrators and board of trustee members want to "solve" their problems with African American Studies by folding it into one of the white disciplines. This was the meaning of Dean Soufas' attempt to place a white scholar at the head of our department, a scholar who was a dual appointment in history and AFAM Studies. We are also in an ideological crisis. In the case of AFAM Studies at Temple, we are faced with Molefi Asante's idea that there should be one and only one theoretical and ideological position in the department and that should be his version of afrocentricism. He therefore sees a person like myself as an obstacle. It is this ideological and theoretical arrogance and narrow mindedness that led him to join with a dean that even he defined as a racist in my firing and his cheap and dishonest attempts to hide his role by making the whole affair appear as merely a bureaucratic and administrative issue of a year to year contract. However, he - for ideological and other reasons that I can't explain - chose the path of turning on me, participating in my firing. The great irony is that I was the one who had fought hardest over two years to maintain the integrity and autonomy of the department. People see this and have begun questioning his integrity and even the veracity and genuineness of his version of afrocentrism. I have called over the course of this struggle for the university to reinvest in AFAM Studies at Temple. This means a multi-year commitment. Such a commitment I have tied to the university turning away from the ruthlessness of its economic and gentrification policies towards the Black and Brown communities to which it is neighbors.
What are you most proud of in the department? What are the things happening in African American Studies at Temple that are dynamic, important, and that you want to get back to the business of doing?
I am proud that we have AFAM Studies, that ours is the first to give a PhD in the nation. I am really proud of our students, undergrad and grad students. I think, however, we're in crisis. Our faculty is lacking; the faculty lacks enthusiasm and courage. They are cowed and intimidated, afraid of Asante and the dean. They have only superficial links to the community and fail to speak out against social and racial injustice.
What does your experience at Temple say about the state of Black Studies around the country?
Like the university in general (and for that matter, the society) neo-liberal capitalism has thrown AFAM Studies into crisis. A crisis of funding, a crisis of ideology, a crisis of theory and practice in an atmosphere of intimidation, bullying and attack upon Blacks and the Black intellectual traditions, especially the radical tradition. We need courageous voices to oppose this. Our struggle at Temple is part of raising voices of opposition and decency; voices for justice and against poverty and white supremacy.
What can readers interested in supporting you do?
Many things. Visit our Facebook page, "Justice for Dr. Anthony Monteiro," and keep up with current developments in this struggle. Contact us through our Facebook page. Send letters to President Neil Theobald at Temple calling for him to reverse Dean Soufas' action in firing me. Set up university and community discussions and town hall meetings about the struggle at Temple and how similar struggles need to be supported in your community and at your university. If you are an academic or scholar, sign the [petition] of academics calling for my reinstatement. It can be found at EMAJonline. Finally I think people support me by initiating their own local struggles to make universities accountable to their communities, employees, faculties and students.
Is there anything else that Truthout readers should know that I neglected to ask? Any recent events or updates regarding your position at Temple?
We have assembled an impressive coalition calling for my reinstatement. In many ways, it looks like what coalition building in this period should be like. We have students, faculty, the local labor movement, community organizations and activists, faith based organizations, and churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues, the grass roots activists, and advocates against homelessness and hunger. This coalition has significance that goes far beyond my reinstatement and me. It is a fighting coalition. Very important are the student activists, fifty of whom sat in at a recent Board of Trustees meeting forcing the President and the Chairman of the Board to meet with us and hear our demands. I like to think of these student activists and radicals as on the one side the children of Occupy and on the other, the children of Trayvon. A spirit of cross-racial unity is emerging. For me of all the lessons thus far of this movement and the one that has great future importance is the rise of a generation of student activists linked to the community and the labor movement and committed to anti-white supremacy and with a critique of neoliberal capitalism and American empire and war. This generation can sway the future and we are seeing the rise of a new student vanguard.
This article is a Truthout original.